Amid tough words, Obama seeks to limit US role in Libya

President Obama sought to place boundaries on any US military involvement in Libya, even as he ordered Muammar Qaddafi to rein in his troops.

President Barack Obama makes a statement on Libya, Friday, March 18, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

President Obama laid down clear conditions Friday for Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi in his conduct toward his own people, or face an international military response.

“The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Arab states agree that a cease-fire must be implemented immediately,” Mr. Obama said in remarks from the White House. “That means all attacks against civilians must stop.”

The president also warned Mr. Qaddafi to stop his troops from advancing on Libya’s second-largest city, the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and to pull them back from other Libyan cities – Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya. Obama also ordered the establishment of water, electricity, and gas supplies throughout the country and demanded that humanitarian assistance be allowed to reach the people of Libya.

But in his remarks, delivered hours before he was to leave for Latin America, the president also just as clearly sought to place boundaries on any US military involvement within Libya. The Obama administration had been reluctant until this week to go along with a United Nations Security Council resolution approving military action in Libya aimed at protecting civilians, which passed Thursday.

Opinion in Washington remains sharply divided over the wisdom of US insertion in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. Before the UN vote, both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed strong reluctance about getting involved militarily in Libya.

“I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing,” Obama said. “The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya, and we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya.”

Obama also stressed that the US will not be acting alone – that Britain, France, and members of the Arab League will take a leadership role in enforcing the UN resolution. But questions remain unanswered: What exactly will America’s role be, as well as that of the other participants? Who will pay for the effort, which could drag on indefinitely? What is the deadline for Qaddafi to comply? When will the allies’ military action start?

Qaddafi’s claim of a cease-fire proved not to be true, as attacks against civilians continued Friday. So in theory, allied military action in Libya could begin soon. On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to Paris for a meeting on Libya with US allies.

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